Couric makes CBS debut (minus the airbrushing)

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The Independent US

And now for someone completely different: Katie Couric! That is how the CBS Evening News might have kicked off on Tuesday night when the aforementioned made her debut as the first woman to become the solo anchor of a network news programme in the United States. Instead, she smiled and said simply, "Hi everyone, I'm very glad to be with you tonight."

Fortunately, Tuesday was a bit of a dud in news terms, saving Couric from any breaking-story mayhem. There was even time to punt a Vanity Fair exclusive photograph of Tom Cruise's not-so-new baby, Suri. But as everyone was perfectly aware, the only news that mattered was Couric herself.

The hype ahead of Tuesday's newscast, painstakingly pumped by a network desperate to revive its flagging news division, had lasted for five months, ever since Couric abandoned the perch she had occupied for 15 years as co-host of Today, a ratings-rich breakfast show over at NBC. Her fame in this country is such that even a change of hairstyle can prompt large tabloid headlines. Her expression of joy at finally being in the chair for the big first night was doubtless sincere. After so much anticipation - not to mention the wide advertising of an annual salary of $15m (£8m) - she was surely anxious to prove that she was up to the challenge.

The nature of that challenge is no secret. Couric is being asked to bring some of the casual perkiness for which she is so well known into the CBS newsroom while at the same time summoning the gravitas that Americans for decades have come to expect from their evening anchors. By the reckoning of most critics yesterday, she seems so far to be pulling it off.

It was for this reason that the voice of Walter Cronkite introduced Couric to viewers as the opening music faded. Mr Cronkite, a former CBS anchor, is a national treasure and the quintessence of serious-news delivery. It is also why her first segment was a highbrow report by a foreign correspondent, Lara Logan, wearing a burka as she travelled through Taliban-held territory in Afghanistan. There was a sit-down interview about President George Bush with the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, a serious figure indeed. Her guest last night, meanwhile, was to be the President himself.

That so much has been made of her gender has caused some to accuse CBS of old-fashioned sexism. The network admitted it had airbrushed promotional images of Couric to make her look slimmer and taller than she actually is. Male anchors are not likely to be treated in quite the same way.

"I think there is some residual sexism, and I think women are sort of judged by different standards," Couric suggested in a recent pre-debut interview. "But I try not to get too preoccupied by that. I feel very confident in who I am as a person and as a professional."

It will be a while before CBS finds out whether Couric will be enough to lift its evening news bulletin, which for years has languished in third place behind NBC and ABC, and whether she can move away from her soft-news past. (The Tom Cruise segment was not a good omen.)

One person can only do so much, however. The network news shows have long ceased to be a cornerstone of American culture and conversation. Today they attract maybe 30 million viewers collectively, half the number they used to.

Among Couric's other tasks is to guide CBS into the digital future with a greater focus on delivering news through its website.

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